A Private Investigator on Living in a Surveillance Culture

By Judith Coburn, who was 40 years a journalist for a variety of media outlets, none of them fake, and then became a private eye, specializing in death-penalty cases and searches for people whom filmmakers and writers want to find for their movies and books. Originally published at TomDispatch

Now that we know we are surveilled 24/7 by the National Security Agency, the FBI, local police, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, hackers, the Russians, the Chinese, the North Koreans, data brokers, private spyware groups like Black Cube, and companies from which we’ve ordered swag on the Internet, is there still any “right to be forgotten,” as the Europeans call it? Is there any privacy left, let alone a right to privacy?

In a world in which most people reveal their intimate secrets voluntarily, posting them on social media and ignoring the pleas of security experts to protect their data with strong passwords — don’t use your birth date, your telephone number, or your dog’s name — shouldn’t a private investigator, or PI, like me be as happy as a pig in shit? Certainly, the totalitarian rulers of the twentieth century would have been, if such feckless openness had been theirs to abuse.

As it happens, tech — or surveillance capitalism — has disrupted the private investigation business as much as it’s ripped through journalism, the taxi business, war making, and so many other private and public parts of our world. And it’s not only celebrities and presidential candidates whose privacy hackers have burned through. Israeli spyware can steal the contacts off your phone just as LinkedIn did to market itself to your friends. Google, the Associated Press reported recently, archives your location even when you’ve turned off your phone. Huge online database brokers like Tracers, TLO, and IRBsearch that law enforcement and private eyes like me use can trace your address, phone numbers, email addresses, social media accounts, family members, neighbors, credit reports, the property you own, foreclosures or bankruptcies you’ve experienced, court judgments or liens against you, and criminal records you may have rolled up over the years.

Ten years ago, to subscribe to one of these databases, I had to show proof that I was indeed a licensed investigator and pass an on-site investigation to ensure that any data I downloaded would be protected. I was required to have a surveillance camera and burglar alarm on the building where my office was located, as well as a dead bolt on my office door, a locked filing cabinet, and double passwords to get into my computer. Now, most database brokers just require a PI or attorney license and you can sign right up online. Government records — federal and state, civil and criminal — are also increasingly online for anyone to access.

The authoritarian snoops of the last century would have drooled over the surveillance uses of the smartphones that most of us now carry. Smartphones have, in fact, become one of the primo law enforcement tools other than the Internet. “Find my iPhone” can even find a dead body — if, that is, the victim left her iPhone on while being murdered. And don’t get me started on the proliferation of surveillance cameras in our world.

Take me. I had a classic case that shows just how traceable we all now are. There was a dead body, a possible murder victim, but no direct evidence: no witnesses, no DNA, no fingerprints, and no murder weapon found. In San Francisco’s East Bay, however, as in most big American cities, there are so many surveillance cameras mounted on mom-and-pop stores, people’s houses, bars, cafes, hospitals, toll bridges, tunnels, even in parks, that the police can collect enough video, block by block, to effectively map a suspect driving around Oakland for hours before hitting the freeway and heading out to dump a body, just as the defendant in my case did.

Once upon a time, cops and dirty private eyes would have had to attach trackers to the undercarriages of cars to follow them electronically. No longer. The particular suspect I have in mind drove his victim’s car across a bridge, where cameras videotaped the license plate but couldn’t see inside the car; nor, he must have assumed, could anyone record him on the deserted road he finally reached where he was undoubtedly confident that he was safe. What he didn’t notice was the CALFIRE video camera placed on that very road to monitor for brush fires. It caught a car’s headlights matching his on its way to the site he had chosen to dump the body. There was no direct evidence of the murder he had committed, just circumstantial, tech-based evidence. A jury, however, convicted him in just a few hours.

A World of Tech Junkies

In our world of the unforgotten, tech is seen as a wonder of wonders. Juries love tech. Many jurors think tech is simply science and so beyond disbelief. As a result, they tend to react badly when experts are called as defense witnesses to disabuse them of their belief in tech’s magic powers: that, for instance, cellphone calls don’t always pinpoint exactly where someone was when he or she made a call. If too many signals are coming in to the closest tower to a cell phone, a suspect’s calls may be rerouted to a more distant tower. Similarly, the FBI’s computerized fingerprint index often makes mistakes in its matches, as do police labs when it comes to DNA samples. And facial recognition systems, the hottest new tech thing around (and spreading like wildfire across China), may be the most unreliable of all, although that certainly hasn’t stopped Amazon from marketing a surveillance camera with facial recognition abilities.

These days, it’s hard to be a PI and not become a tech junkie. Some PIs use tech to probe tech, specializing, for example, in email investigations in big corporate cases in which they pore through thousands of emails. I recently asked a colleague what it was like. “It’s great,” he said. “You don’t have to leave your office and for the first couple of weeks you entertain yourself finding out who’s having affairs with whom and who’s gunning for whom in the target’s office, but after that it’s unspeakably tedious and goes on for months, even years.”

When I started out, undoubtedly having read too many Raymond Chandler and Sue Grafton novels, I thought that to be a real private eye I had to do the old-fashioned kind of surveillance where you actually follow someone in person. So I agreed to tail a deadbeat mom who claimed to be unemployed and wanted more alimony from her ex. She turned out to be a scofflaw driver, too, a regular runner of red lights. (Being behind her, I was the one who got the tickets, which I tried to bill on my expense report to no avail.) But tailing her turned out to make no difference, except to my bank account. Nor did tech. Court papers had already given us her phone and address but no job information. Finally, I found her moonlighting at a local government office. How? The no-tech way: simply by phoning an office where one of her relatives worked and asking for her. “Not in today,” said the receptionist helpfully and I knew what I needed to know. It couldn’t have been less dramatic or noir-ish.

These days, tech is so omnipresent and omnivorous that many lawyers think everything can be found on the Internet. Two lawyers working on a death-penalty appeal once came to see me about working on their case. There had been a murder at a gas station in Oakland 10 years earlier. Police reports from the time indicated that there was a notorious “trap house” where crack addicts were squatting across from the gas station. The lawyers wanted me to find and interview some of those addicts to discover whether they’d seen anything that night. It would be a quick job, they assured me. (Translation: they would pay me chump change.) I could just find them on the Internet.

I thought they were kidding. Crack addicts aren’t exactly known for their Internet presence. (They may have cell phones, but they tend not to generate phone bills, rental leases, utility bills, school records, mortgages, or any of the other kinds of databases collect that you might normally rely on to find your quarry.) This was, I argued, an old-fashioned shoe-leather-style investigation: go to the gas station and the trap house (if it still existed), knock on doors to see if neighbors knew where the former drug addicts might now be: Dead? Still on that very street? Recovered and long gone?

In a world where high-tech is king, I didn’t get the job and I doubt they found their witnesses either.

You’d think that, in a time when tech is the story of the day, month, and year and a presidential assistant is even taping without permission in the White House Situation Room, anything goes. But not for this aging PI. I mean, really, should I rush over to a belly-dancing class in Berkeley to see if some guy’s fiancée and the teacher go back to her motel together? (No.) Should I break into an ex-lover’s house to steal memos she’d written to get him fired? (Are you kidding?) Should I eavesdrop on a phone call in which a wife is trying to get her husband to admit that he battered her? (Not in California, where the law requires permission from every party in a phone call to be on the line, thereby wiping out such eavesdropping as an investigative tool — only cops with a warrant being exempt.)

I certainly know PIs who would take such cases and I’m not exactly squeaky clean myself. After all, as a journalist working for Ramparts magazine back in the 1960s, I broke into the basement of the National Student Association(with another reporter) to steal files showing that the group’s leaders were working for the CIA and that the agency actually owned the very building they occupied. In a similar fashion, on a marginally legal peep-and-trespass in those same years, another reporter and I crawled through bushes on the grounds of a VA Hospital in Maryland where we had been told that we could find a replica of a Vietnamese village being used to train American assassins in the CIA’s Phoenix program. That so-called pacification program would, in the end, kill more than 26,000 Vietnamese civilians. We found the “village,” secretly watched some of the training, and filed the first piece about that infamously murderous program for New York’s Village Voice.

Those ops were, however, in the service of a higher ideal, much like smartphone videographers today who shoot police violence. But most of surveillance capitalism is really about making sure that no one in our new world can ever be forgotten. PIs chasing perps in divorce cases are a small but tawdry part of just that. But what about, to take an extreme case in which the sleazy meets the new tech world big time, the FBI’s pursuit of lovers of kiddy porn, which I learned something about by taking such a case? The FBI emails a link to a fake website that it’s created to all the contacts a known child pornographer has on his computer or phone. It has the kind of bland come-on pornographers tend to use. If you click on that link, you get a menu advertising yet more links to photos with titles like “my 4-year-old daughter taking a bath.” Click on any of those links and you’ll be anything but forgotten. The FBI will be at your door with cuffs within days.

Does someone who devours child porn have a right to be forgotten? Maybe you don’t think so, but what about the rest of us? Do we? It’s hardly a question anymore.

The Good and Ugly Gotchas of This Era

When all the surveillance techniques on those information databases work, it’s like three lemons lining up on a one-armed bandit. Recently, for instance, a California filmmaker called me, desperate. She was producing a movie about the first Nepalese woman to climb Mount Everest. Her team had indeed reached the summit, but were buried in an avalanche on the way down with only one survivor. The filmmaker wanted to find that man.

Could I do so? She didn’t have enough money to send me to Nepal. (Rats!) But couldn’t I find him on the Internet? His name, she told me, was Pemba Sherpa. What’s his family name, I asked? That’s when I found out that “sherpa” isn’t just a Western term for Nepalese who guide people up mountains; it’s the surname of many Nepalese. Great! That’s like asking me to find John Smith with no birthdate, social security number, address, or even the Nepalese equivalent of the state where he lives. In my mind’s eye, I could instantly see my database search coming up with the always frustrating “your search criteria resulted in too many records found.” I also had my doubts that, despite the globalization of our tech world, most Nepalese were on the Internet.

Amazingly, however, checking out “sherpas,” I promptly found a single Pemba in my search, unfortunately with — the bane of a PI’s life — not another piece of information.

Okay, Google, I thought, it’s all yours. No Pemba on the first five pages of my search there. (Groan.) But it was late at night and I was feeling obsessive, so I kept going. (Note to home investigators: don’t give up on Google after those first few pages.) From earlier research, I had discovered that one of the main Nepalese communities outside that country was in Portland, Oregon, where many mountaineering companies are also based. On maybe my 28th Google page, I suddenly saw a link to a Portland alternative newspaper story from the mid-1990s. (Who was even scanning in such articles back then?)

I clicked on it. The piece was about a Portland Pemba Sherpa who had gone back to his native village to help its inhabitants get electricity. The article went on to say that he had left Nepal “because too many of his friends had died on the mountain.” Hmmm. It also reported that he was married to a mathematics teacher at a Portland community college.

We’re talking about a more-than-20-year-old article! Still, the next morning I doggedly called the college and yes, his wife was teaching math there. I was patched through to the math department where, yes again, the wife picked up and, yes, her husband was the sole survivor of that climb, and she was sure he’d want to be interviewed for the movie.

Bingo! The actual wonders of the Internet and a heartwarming story about someone who needed to be found. Finding an ancient nanny to invite to the wedding of a guy she had raised — after they had been out of contact for decades — proved a similarly happy search. But that’s rare. The question, not just for PIs but for all of us, is this: Should everyone be so track down-able, even if they don’t wish to be? Some investigators, in the spirit of the moment, think that if there’s an unknowable about anyone, it should be uncovered. The journalist who outed novelist Elsa Ferrante really thought he’d done something, but it was just another in an increasing number of mean-spirited gotchas of our era.

Why do people need privacy anyway? The freedom and community that Internet utopians promised us has led instead to the scraping open of our lives by law enforcement, social media, hackers, marketers, and the world’s governments. Now we’re left largely to our own devices when it comes to what little we can do about it and the global surveillance culture that it’s enmeshed all of us in.

Back in the late 1960s, Erwin Knoll, editor of the Progressive magazine, made President Richard Nixon’s enemy list. That qualified him to be wiretapped by the FBI, so he asked his wife Doris to call female friends every day and discourse on grisly gynecological matters to disturb the listening agents (mostly male in those days). Erwin wondered if they wouldn’t think it was some kind of code.

Alexa! I just got back from my gynecologist and…

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  1. Tomonthebeach

    Ms Coburn makes a good point, but it calls for some historical perspective.

    Gathering intel on people from voluntary sources – including self-reports – is not a problem caused by the digital era. Back in the late 60’s I worked my way through college working as a PI for a company that eventually became Experian. Most of my work was insurance, employment, and finance-related. I got most of my intel from files and talking to people face-to-face and on the phone. Even back then, if you were up for company VP, your boss thought you were pocketing movie ticket receipts, or you applied for a million dollar insurance policy, the odds were we already had a paper file on your credit defaults, job firings, speeding tickets, what neighbors thought of you, etc. from which to start. If a subject just moved from Seattle to Chicago – no problem, Seattle would fax us their file.

    We could not tell a customer in 1970 what your favorite ice cream flavor was, or what you have been shopping for lately, I could tell them things that influenced your APR, your insurance premiums, or your next big promotion – information of far greater personal impact than Facebook junk. Somebody please tell Zuckerberg that I bought new swim trunks 2 weeks ago. Of course, today there is little doubt that CIA, NSA, and FBI have access to Experian’s database, and Equifax, and every keystroke on my smartphone and PC. Today, a pro can obtain and sell more data faster, but its information value and impact on our fate might not be much more onerous that what I could access 50 years ago.

    In addition to increased vulnerabilities, the digital age also comes with increased protections. Joe Burglar might determine from my spouse’s Facebook posts that we will be in Europe for another month. However, he would also have to get past video cams, motion sensors, glass break sensors, and a 24/7 surveillance service even if I am not at home. Similarly, hackers might try to intercept my online banking activity while in Bulgaria, but my Kasperky VPN and other software will block them and cut off unauthorized up/downloads instantly.

    Making sense of all that digital scree is still more art than science. Although we think of privacy in Cambridge Analytica terms, there is still strength in numbers. Servers are sucking up all this cybercrud, but few can make much practical sense of it. We continue to learn that school shooters and terrorists had long histories of posted threats and suspicious weapons interests days AFTER the fact. Paul Manafort screwed the IRS out of mega millions for years despite the evidence being accessible. Nobody checked.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      About those mass shooters whose long histories of posted threats and suspicious weapons interest are long known and long disregarded before the mass shooting, has anyone considered the possibility that the police authorities, perhaps on undisclosed orders from above, are deliberately letting these people stay free “in the wild” in the hopes that enough such mass shootings will prepare mass public opinion for total police control at many levels?
      Including total gun confiscation?

      1. HotFlash

        Oh jeez. LIHOP, MIHOP, or simple incompetence? I would normally vote for incompetence, but it just keeps on happening… What to think?

      2. RepubAnon

        I’ll go with information overload. Given the number of people whose hobby seems to be posting threats and suspicious weapons interests, how does one spot the wanna-be mass shooter before the tragedy? Given the NRA’s successes in passing laws against confiscating firearms, could one legally seize weapons from someone who “fit the profile.” Should we make merely “fitting the profile” a crime, and make the movie Minority Report prescient?

    2. Enquiring Mind

      Three-letter agencies are not the only ones to access credit files and other online resources. I know of an enterprising company that has some offshore affiliates, meaning without extradition treaties or similar petty legal restrictions to inhibit their activities. Those affiliates come in handy when needing to research harder-to-find information on the QT, perhaps for anonymous agencies or others with some interest. Great, as if I didn’t have enough to worry about already. :/

    3. Carolinian

      Making sense of all that digital scree

      The haystack is our friend. Perhaps the trick is to be the least conspicuous needle.

      Which is the problem with services like Tor that only call attention to themselves. Indeed trying to be inconspicuous can make you that much more conspicuous given how little clue the spooks have about what they are looking for. From a Big Brother standpoint bureaucratic incompetence is our biggest friend.

  2. witters

    I love the tone of all this!

    My favorite Chandlerism:

    “If you don’t leave, I’ll get somebody who will.”

  3. JJ139

    And yet, amazingly if barely credibly, none of the CCTV cameras seemed to be working on that fateful day in March in Salisbury. Nor on any of the roads the Skripals drove along, maybe even into or past the government chemicals weapons laboratory, in the 4 hours they had turned their phones turned off, both father and daughter!, before returning to Salisbury city centre for a pub drink and lunch before urgently leaving seemingly for an assignation.
    Funny that. Much better to slap a D notice on the media and charge and convict Russia, Russia, Russia without presenting any evidence.

    1. fajensen

      We were always at war with Eurasia!

      Now, of course much of the surveillance technology bought by “government” is junk, poorly maintained and does nothing when needed because most often it is never needed and is neglected. The actual performance is Far from the official image presented.

      We used to joke about secrecy in defence was mostly about the taxpayers not becoming aware how their money was wasted.

      The Skripals, being professional operators, would know to avoid being registered. It might still only be something like a drug deal going down, the poisoning being secondary.

      Having just written all that, I don’t believe it!

  4. Wukchumni

    If you leave your signalling device/s home and take a walk into the wilderness here, nobody is going to watch your every move, as the back of beyond isn’t connected to the outer world.

    One of the last places you can pull it off, and judging from the numbers of people I see traipsing around, quite popular as an escape route from technology.

    1. Carolinian

      Except for those game cameras the rangers are attaching to trees. No such thing as too paranoid.

      1. Wukchumni

        The NPS has a $12 Billion backlog of projects & updating of facilities that Congress won’t fund as it is, so who would be watching the hikers & backpackers on game cameras, if they can’t gin up the funds to replace 1940’s era toilets?

        1. Anon

          Actually, Congress is currently in the process of completing a New Land and Water Conservation Bill that provides dedicated funding (in the Billion$) for the NPS maintenance backlog. Google for it.

      1. JerseyJeffersonian

        Cardinal Richelieu. He was a man who meant business, and for sure not Henny Youngman.

  5. Craig H.

    > there are so many surveillance cameras mounted on mom-and-pop stores, people’s houses, bars, cafes, hospitals, toll bridges, tunnels, even in parks, that the police can collect enough video, block by block, to effectively map a suspect driving around Oakland for hours before hitting the freeway and heading out to dump a body, just as the defendant in my case did.

    Do the cops have to go through all the video themselves or can they outsource that part to some cubicles in Bangalore? Because that job sounds like a huge pain in the butt.

    1. fajensen

      or can they outsource that part to some cubicles in Bangalore

      Back in the naughties, BAE Systems in Bristol had a 42 U rack of blade severs that could track about 20 people across multiple camera streams.

      Today, system performance would have doubled about 9 times on hardware alone, algorithms are just way better, and it probably runs in AWS, so it’s “just” pop in all of those streams and an American Express card!

      The faster one wants results, the more expensive it will be (I have noticed that in the case of a high-profile burglary, they usually get the perp within 48 hours, while a “normal” one is only resolved as part of a larger series – obviously there is a threshold before activating ‘cop-super computer powers’).

      Palantir likely have provided a nice work-flow around the whole thing.

      1. Anonymized

        No need for cop supercomputers. In cases of high-profile burglaries, the police will assign their best investigators: detectives from the homicide squad. There will be unlimited overtime and every single lead will be followed up on, even up to surveillance of all suspects, all because the mayor got their car stolen. Cops will also shake down their snitches and offer rewards to professional burglars or dealers they know that can point them in the right direction. Regular citizens don’t get the VIP treatment.

  6. shinola

    Perhaps it’s just my paranoia, but I assume that just being a regular NC reader puts me on a list of possible “subversives” at some spook agency.

    Posting a comment here probably gets “special” attention.

    So – Howdy spook!

  7. Scott1

    I have an interest in what companies in our world are fronts for the CIA, or other intelligence services. About a year ago I googled CIA Fronts and up popped IN-Q-TEL. Try it now, I didn’t get it to show last time I tried.

    1. Michael Fiorillo

      Is IN Q-TEL a front? I always understood it to be the venture capital arm of the CIA, and openly reported on as such…

  8. Chip Daniels

    One of the hallmarks of dystopian authoritarian regimes is they are both omnipotent and impotent.

    All their vast surveillance and police powers are devoted solely to crushing dissent, not to protecting their citizens.

    So they can ferret out the most secretive dissident, yet be unable to solve a common burglary.

  9. James

    Missing, or rather, extrapolating from this piece, its not so much the ability to aggregate all of this data or even to pin a large amount of data to one person but specifically to create integrated databases where one can isolate individuals into groups based on search parameter(s) (i.e. gun-owners, leftist protesters, or NC readers) and decide they are undesirable is the single greatest concern.

    As Saint Just found out, the “Will of the People” is really a mask hiding the mercurial ambitions of a few amoral power hungry sociopaths. Pandora does not go back in the box and all these lofty aspirations for STEM-savy citizens is simply cheese meant to coax mice into building a better mousetraps. If that seems far-fetched to you, remember that the CIA is largely responsible for manufacturing support for modern art in spite of the tastes of many “dumb Americans”.

    The difference is, there’s no amount of damning evidence on Google that’ll hold three letter agencies accountable. Those same agencies don’t even need the data to ruin you. That’s point of the data is the illusion of control meant to curb their paranoia. Preparing for the worst results in a pretty good imagination, and THEN, more prepping.

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